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Arts-based Research Methods

So often when we discuss or engage with research – whether taking a course at Tufts Summer Research, managing an independent qualitative research project during summer break, or reading about a new study in Science Partner Journal – we talk specifically about STEM-related projects. In fact, most contemporary research methods are built upon the foundations of the scientific method, which dictates that ‘truth’ is discovered through a process that is observable, reliable, objective, and valid; but what about all the ‘truths’ that aren’t measurable? What about community action, emotional truths, art, and dialogue? How do we apply rigorous research methods to other ways of knowing? How do we, say, research the effect of certain pigments on the composite of a painting? How can we talk about the connections between the anatomy of the vocal cords and the qualities of operatic singing?

We need to use different methods! So, here are four of the most common methods used for arts-based research and enquiry:

Practice-based Research

Practice-based research is a framework where a researcher explores their research question by making things. These ‘things’ can be virtually anything: songs, poems, clothes, video games, workshops, food, speeches, etc. The important thing is not what is made, but what is learned by making it.

This is the most common kind of research method used among artists. The process generally follows these four steps:

1. Idea

2. Create something that works toward that idea and document it

3. Reflect on the process of making

4. Generate another idea.

Then the cycle repeates itself.

What is an example of this kind of research? Perhaps you are interested in making sculptures. You want to know how sculptures can help people navigate through their neighborhood. So, you make a sculpture and observe people’s interactions with the work. You reflect on that process, then try it again. The key is to keep repeating the cycle and then find a way to discuss or disseminate what you learn - what you learn is your research outcome.

Participatory Action Research

Participatory Action Research (PAR) is a research method centered on the belief that those who are most impacted by a given research project should be the ones to frame the research questions, design the process, and analyze the data. This kind of research works toward social justice efforts which seek to center marginalized voices and ensure that all parties have access to power within the research process.

What is an example of this kind of research? Well, let’s say you are interested in creating a series of paintings that depict a dance troupe at your school. Instead of posing your own questions (What kinds of pigment work best for depicting movement? What size canvas should I use?) you would ask the dance troupe to generate the questions for you. This relies on dialogue and asking questions: How does this group of dancers feel about being painted? What questions do they have about what this could mean? Is there a different medium (film, photography, audio) that would be more effective in achieving their goals?

The biggest pro of this method is that it centers the subject’s (of the research) voice. This means that the change brought about by the research will be more sustainable and profound. The challenge of this method is its ambiguity; bringing in other voices means you have less control of the outcome.

Autoethnographic Research

Autoethnographic research is a form of qualitative research in which the researcher uses self-reflection and writing to explore personal experiences and connect them to their wider social context. In other words, the research is drawn from their personal experience of something.

This does not mean that any personal experience is considered autoethnographic research. The method for gathering data needs to remain rigorous and documented, just like any research project. The outcome for this kind of research typically includes a personal narrative or autobiographical account of the experience.

What is an example of this kind of research method? Perhaps you want to know more about the queer community and its effects on individuals in your neighborhood or region. Since you count yourself as a member of this community, you set up an experiment by which you plan to visit all known and unknown queer spaces in your town - ideally each one more than once. You record your reflections, take pictures, and talk with people. You submerge yourself in the scene for 6 months and really get to know who is in this community and how they engage with each other. Then, at the end of the time you have allotted to the research, you write an autobiographical account of your experience in order to answer your original question. In this way, your personal experience can make a comment on the wider cultural implications of queer communities in your city.


A/R/Tography stands for Art-Research-Teacher and is a research method that combines practice-based research with community engagement work. This kind of research is present when a group of artists, teachers, or researchers come together to engage in a line of inquiry together. Another way to think about this is to consider teaching as a kind of art.

For example, say you are interested in providing a ceramics workshop. You want to know the best way to set up the curriculum. Should you start with a demonstration or an ice breaker activity? Should participants be at their own table or one large table? In order to answer these questions you host a workshop, reflect on what worked and what didn’t, then host another workshop, and so on. By the determined end of your research you will have a better idea of the best way to set up and design a ceramics workshop in your community - this is the conclusion of your research.

Phew! That was a lot! Even if these methods are bit too ambiguous for you to understand right away, we hope we have at least planted the seed that research is not only for STEM-students. Artists are researchers too!

Want more support in your research journey? Reach out to us at Crimson Research Institute!

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